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The case against comedian and actor Bill Cosby, who has been accused by dozens of women of various counts of sexual assault, hit a snag on Saturday when the judge declared a mistrial. The jury was deadlocked regarding charges that Bill allegedly drugged and raped former Temple University employee Andrea Constand in 2004, according to the Associated Press.
And while the prosecution has already vowed to take this criminal case to court again, many are left wondering what this initial verdict says about how society views sexual assault cases—and even survivors themselves. "Is there power in numbers? Will anyone believe them if they tell their stories?" Rebecca Traister writes for The Cut, speculating what millions of women must be thinking in the aftermath of the verdict.
Rebecca O'Connor, the Vice-President of Public Policy at the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), says that while the mistrial verdict is certainly disappointing for survivors and their advocates, it has had one surprising upside. "In the wake of this case, and headlines about high-profile cases like Bill Cosby and Jerry Sandusky, we’ve seen a surge on the National Sexual Assault Hotline of individuals who are raising their voices and reaching out for support," she tells WomensHealthMag.com.
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While she acknowledges that public setbacks like this one can have a "chilling effect," on survivors coming forward, "The more we take this crime out of the shadows and the 'it doesn't happen here' mentality, the more survivors see themselves in those headlines and in those stories, and recognize that they have resources available to them."
O'Connor also hopes that the Cosby accusations will highlight the "uncomfortable truth," that anyone can commit sexual violence. "Unfortunately, even Cliff Huxtable can be, at the end of the day, a rapist," she says. "This is a matter of individuals who may be upstanding members of society by all accounts, who have a different side to them and who perpetrate these crimes against others in their lives."
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This line of thinking played a large role in conversations around the Bill Cosby accusations. His Cosby Show costar Phylicia Rashad told Showbiz 411 in 2015 that she never saw in her friend any of the behavior that his accusers say they experienced. "What you're seeing is the destruction of a legacy," she said of the accusations. Singer and actress Jill Scott echoed this sentiment on Twitter in 2014. "U know Bill Cosby?" she tweeted regarding a Temple University petition to end the school's relationship with the comedian per CBS News. "I do child and this is insane. Proof. Period."
Even after the transcript of Bill's deposition from 2005 and 2006 was released in 2015, and first reported on by the New York Times—where he admitted under oath to providing women with quaaludes in order to have sex with them—many people still found it challenging to reconcile the idea that the trailblazing comedian and philanthropist could be a predator.
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"I used to work in domestic violence and it was very similar," O'Connor says about this mindset—where people say that the person they knew couldn't possibly commit such a crime. That's why as painful and difficult it may be to acknowledge that people we may know personally, or who we idolize, can be guilty of sexual violence, O'Connor is adamant that people work to shift their thinking about who commits rape. "There is no prototypical perpetrator of sexual violence. This is a crime that doesn’t see age or race or any of that," she says. It's a crime, she says, that affects "almost every single family in America," from suburban homes to college campuses to swanky office buildings.
Considering that the prosecution is seeking to try Bill Cosby again, O'Connor is hopeful for a positive outcome for survivors, in one way or another. "In the past you may have seen this type of issue swept under the rug or never reach this level of the justice system," she says. "As much as it can be frustrating to see a mistrial in this case, there’s a little bit of a silver lining in that it’s been held up in the public that no one is immune from prosecution for these crimes."
Additionally, O'Connor says that RAINN is working to press states to reexamine their statute of limitation laws, which have become a key part of the conversation around the accusations against Bill. (According to TIME, Andrea Constand's case is most likely the only one that will result in a criminal trial, since the majority of the allegations against Cosby are older than Pennsylvania's 12-year statute of limitations).
O'Connor urges people to listen to and believe survivors of sexual assault, and to continue to try and understand the nature of these crimes. "As a nation, we are adopting more of a zero-tolerance policy," she says about sexual assault. "That culture shift is one where we can't afford to lose momentum."
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted in this form or another, seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINN and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.